Pam Campbell

Pam Campbell

In recent years, sustainability has become one of the most prominent motivators of architectural design. Rarely is a project unveiled without a corresponding press release touting a green roof, photovoltaic array, or an expected LEED ranking. While such headline-grabbing green building features are important, New York City–based architecture practice COOKFOX believes that sustainability should go beyond reducing the energy footprint. The firm has been incorporating principles of biophilic design into its projects in order to produce buildings that treat human beings as an integral part of a natural ecosystem.
AN’s Henry Melcher recently spoke with COOKFOX Senior Associate Pam Campbell about what biophilic design is and how her firm is incorporating it into its architecture.

Henry Melcher: So what is Biophilic Design?

Pam Campbell: The term was initially coined by a social psychologist back in the 1960s called Erich Fromm, but it is generally attributed to E.O. Wilson, who wrote the Biophilia Hypothesis in the 80s, which was a body of research that has developed ever since and really explains that we as human beings have this connection to nature, and that because we developed in a natural setting we have these psychological and physical reactions to natural landscapes and materials.


There has been a lot of research showing how different natural phenomenon within the interior environment contribute to the performance of children in schools and people in the workplace—how healthy they are, how attentive they are, how much they can focus on a certain task.

The thinking is that because of the nature of human beings, we feel at home in natural landscapes so we really need to reestablish that connection—and that is where architecture comes into it. We have this ability as designers to create spaces that can work to reengage people with the natural landscape and the health benefits that go along with that.

Whether it’s views out to a natural landscape or bringing plantings into an interior, we call that “nature in the space.” And then there is something called “nature of the space” and that might not have anything to do with looking at vegetation, but creating spaces that mimic natural settings in which humans thrived and felt most comfortable in the way we developed over time.

There is also something called “prospect and refuge theory.” If you think about humans in the natural landscape way back when, when they could see into the distance to a predator or some danger coming, they would be in a place of prospect, but also in a place where they have some refuge. When you have this combination of prospect and refuge, it has this visceral reaction of how we feel within that space.

And there is “risk and peril.” Our bodies react pretty well to short-term stresses—they keep us more alert, raise our heart rate and hormone levels—and as long as that is not a permanent state, that has some physical benefits to us. So places where you can see over a balustrade, or be in a place where some sort of risk is involved, it can be a good thing as long as there is a safe place within the space.

The other category is “natural analogues”—when you actually have a tree or something in your space. There are other patterns and materials that we can bring into the design that can start to have the same beneficial responses: the grain of a natural wood as opposed to a piece of plastic.

Richard Barnes / OTTO

What are the challenges of using biophilic design in New York City where so many buildings are sealed and climate-controlled?

It is definitely a challenge. When we get the rare opportunity to design a building in an actual landscape, it can do so much for you in terms of general sustainability. But when you are in the city, you have to do so much more because we are in an environment that is 90 percent buildings, as opposed to 90 percent natural.

There is always that delicate balance between daylight and energy savings. Obviously the glazing technologies are getting better and better; we can now afford to have windows that have a significant amount of glazing without killing the energy budget in terms of cooling and heating costs.

Window sizing is really kind of an art form. Some spaces are great to have floor-to-ceiling glazing, but there are a lot of environments where that is not appropriate—it is too much peril, it doesn’t make people feel relaxed and enclosed. So getting the right balance of opaque, solid exterior walls to glazing is probably one of the major things we can do to create a comfortable environment on the interior.

Biophilic design really comes into play when we are talking about the shape of the space, the materials we use, and the views outside. In terms of trying to create natural environments in the city, it is a challenge and what we’ve tried to do with our projects is to create many terrace spaces and outdoor spaces so people can still view, at least in the foreground, some natural landscapes.

And then obviously creating spaces that aren’t so hermetically sealed where people can view the sky, the changing weather, and different light patterns coming into the space. Not just having good daylighting, but having that pattern change how it impacts the space during the day—it can keep people more alert.

At Live Work Home up in Syracuse we had a particular challenge because Syracuse gets half the amount of natural daylight as the rest of the country. It is a particularly gray place. So we created this screen around the house that was perforated and had a pattern that we digitized from a photograph of daylight coming through a tree canopy. With that randomized pattern we were trying to mimic how you might feel if you were walking through a forest.

That screen allows daylight to filter into the building in different ways. On the north side, we painted the interior face of the screen with a reflective white coating so the sun from the south would reflect off that in a pattern and bounce back onto the porch area as well.

Is biophilic design a selling point? Do developers and prospective buyers want these strategies incorporated into buildings?

I think from the developers’ standpoint, for residential, certainly; everyone is interested in outdoor terraces and we are trying to explain why it is a good thing beyond just a marketing tool. Even if people don’t understand the science behind [biophilic design], they get the fact that, yes, looking out of your living room onto an area of plantings and trees that is changing with the seasons is better than looking across the street at another building. People naturally understand that even if they can’t put it into words.

In terms of biophilic design, people do feel healthier when they are looking at a natural landscape, so I think that is pretty well understood and has been for a long time.

Architects always talk about blending the indoor and the outside. How many times have you heard that? It is something that we have all understood, and I think we are in a better position now because there’s actually some real hard data behind it. That body of knowledge lets us control it more instead of just randomly putting some planting outside on a terrace. We can really enhance the design of that by understanding that it should be changing, it should be moving, there should be taller parts and smaller parts, there should be areas where you feel protected and areas where you see over.

There are a lot of biophilic and sustainable design practices incorporated into One Bryant Park, which is LEED Platinum, but then a [New York City benchmarking] report comes out and says the building is using twice the amount of energy as the Empire State Building. So what are the tangible benefits of using these types of designs?

For Bryant Park there is a difference between energy that is generated on-site versus energy that is generated remotely. The thing is it is a bank of trading floors at the end of the day, so it has one of the most intense energy usages of any building type that can exist in the city; but a lot of that energy is produced on-site.

About 75 percent of the power that is produced by power plants actually gets lost through the transmission of that power to a building. When you’re producing that on-site, that loss doesn’t exist anymore. So in terms of the overall energy use and pollution, those things have to be factored in and rarely are. It’s normally just some numbers that are coming up in a meter and it is not taking into consideration the building type and also where that power is coming from.

Where we really caught the interest of the bank and the developer—this was a joint venture between Bank of America and The Durst Organization—was when we started talking about employee retention.

When you employ somebody there is a certain amount of startup time where they are being pretty inefficient, and when you lose somebody and somebody new starts, there is obviously a huge financial cost there. So creating spaces that people want to be in, where they do have access to daylight and they do feel better, it helps with employee retention and also reduces sick days.

In terms of the air that is getting delivered to the space, it is at a higher filtration. The outdoor air in the city obviously isn’t that great, so if we can filter that air to high levels we can reduce the amount of respiratory problems and other reasons why people may end up taking sick days.

Employee retention and creating healthy workspaces is a huge tool that we have in our toolbox.

Where do you think these technologies and tools will take things in the future?

I think biophilic design is something that people are going to start employing more. We are never going to tear down a city and build a forest again so we have to start employing more educated techniques of bringing back the actual environment in such way that we can cohabit with it. That is something that has to get pushed forward.

There are more and more children being brought up in the city and they have less and less ability to really understand what nature is; they tend to come across it in a very condensed, small environment.

How do we expect future generations to care about the environment if they don’t even understand what it is?